Human trafficking, an issue affecting mainly women and girls, is deeply rooted in India. Although it is difficult to measure the exact scale of the issue due to its hidden and illegal nature, thousands of women and girls are trafficked through the country every year, according to government statistics.
There are many forms of human trafficking, but the trafficking of women and girls for sexual exploitation and marriage are the prevalent ones. Trafficked women are sold to men who then use them as sex objects and domestic workers.
“Almost every area in India is dealing with the problem of trafficking of women,” Shafiqur Rahman Khan, a founder of Empower People, a Delhi-based NGO working with trafficking survivors told me. “We used to have a project where we were tracking 85 villages in northern India. We found that every village had around 200 houses and each of these villages hosted at least 50 trafficked women. This means that almost 30 percent of all the households had trafficked wives.”
In a deeply sad irony, often the victims of human trafficking are the girls and women who sought to break free of India’s patriarchal restrictions. “Who are victims of trafficking? Girls with aspirations who try to break the cycle of poverty, get a job, earn money, choose their own partner,” Khan said, adding that “girls who do not have ambitions do not get trafficked.”
This statement brings attention to the fact that gender inequality, social attitudes suppressing women’s voices, and cultural norms dictating what behaviors are expected from them are among the factors contributing to trafficking in India.
Although it is undeniable that poverty makes women and girls vulnerable to various kinds of exploitation and increases the risk of them being trafficked, patriarchal norms undermining their right to freedom of choice and freedom of expression are also to blame. Human traffickers lure their victims by promising lucrative jobs – which also brings the implicit promise of independence and freedom for young girls.
It is rare that a girl who falls victim to trafficking is motivated solely by wanting to change her economic status. Paradoxically, often they fall for traffickers’ promises because they desperately want to escape the oppressive traditional culture that punishes them for attempting to exercise their agency.
In India’s rural communities, women and girls are typically confined to the domestic realm and have very little say in matters such as choosing their partner or getting an education. With these norms being firmly established, it is difficult for them to find a way out of this reality.
“Most affected families are victims of cheating. They are not selling their girls, they [believe they] are sending them so they can get education and jobs, or to protect them from hunger,” Khan told me, underlining that families almost never decide to sell their daughters to make a profit.
It can, therefore, be argued that even those who have enough means to sustain themselves can be affected.
Despite being officially abolished, the caste system still determines one’s status and limits social mobility. Girls who strive to achieve more than the community they were born into will try to use any opportunity they have.
Rather than remaining passive, they want to be in charge of shaping their future – but this sometimes leads girls into the hands of traffickers.
For as long as India’s women and girls view a reality in which they are free to make decisions regarding their own lives as something difficult to achieve, trafficking will keep happening. “No one can tell girls to stop dreaming,” Khan said.
This is one of the reasons why it is challenging to prevent trafficking, but the ineffectiveness of India’s anti-trafficking system also hinders progress.
“Most anti-trafficking agencies operate as law enforcement organizations. They investigate cases and work with police to find these girls and bring them to their homes. But they fail to look at trafficking from the victims’ perspective,” Khan pointed out. To be effective, he continued, those involved in anti-trafficking efforts need to aim to see things from the perspective of the victims. Only then is it possible to understand how traffickers select their targets and craft their messaging to lure victims.
“Rescuing a girl requires more than organizing a raid on their oppressor’s house,” Khan noted. If the reasons that made them trust the trafficker in the first place are not addressed, and they do not get assistance with reintegrating into their home community, the same thing might happen to them again.
Many former victims of trafficking have to deal with stigma upon being brought back to their families. Links they had with their community had been broken and some shame them for getting deceived. In turn, it is not uncommon for trafficking survivors to face isolation, discrimination, and limited employment opportunities.
Feminist organizations and activists also tend to be involved in working with anti-trafficking victims, but Khan believes that although they put forward a narrative of caring, they do not undertake concrete steps to combat the issue. Raising awareness is important, but soft measures are not enough to put an end to trafficking and protect survivors.
When working with survivors, it is necessary to support them throughout the reintegration process and monitor whether they are being treated fairly after returning home.
And, maybe even more importantly, anti-trafficking actors have “try to help them rediscover their identity, encourage them to speak up, teach them about their rights, make them tell their stories,” Khan said. “All these things are designed to increase their community participation and rebuild the bond between them and their families.”
This is what Khan’s NGO, Empower People, aims to do through working with communities in areas that host large numbers of trafficking survivors.
The north Indian state of Haryana, for example, is notorious for the large numbers of women involuntarily brought there to be married off to men who struggle to find wives due to gender imbalance in the region. Empower People operates in five districts of Haryana and started a survivors’ collective, which brings together trafficked brides and gives them a platform to connect with others who understand what they came through.
While there is no single profile of a trafficking victim, what these girls have in common is wanting to be able to fully participate in social and economic life. “Each case of trafficking is a failed revolution,” Khan said.
Khan’s statement sends a powerful message that trafficking survivors have the potential to drive positive change in their home communities, because they have the courage to challenge the status quo.
“To combat trafficking, stop killing girls’ ambitions,” he said when I asked him about what changes are needed to tackle the scale of the problem. “The only way to prevent trafficking is providing girls with opportunities.”
High numbers of trafficking cases represent India’s failure to create an enabling environment where women and girls are respected and equal to men. Recognizing that and placing more focus on empowering women can result in not only reducing their vulnerability to trafficking but also in creating a better, more inclusive society.